International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day in some countries, is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement, socialists, communists or anarchists and occurs every year on May Day (1 May).
Origins of May Day
International working classes have existed since the development of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago. Serfs, slaves, trades people and others were forced to turn over the fruits of their labour to an exploiting class. But the modern working class, whose exploitation is hidden by the wage system, is only several hundred years old. Men, women and children forced to work long hours in miserable conditions just to eke out a living.
These conditions gave rise to demands for limitations on the working day. Utopian socialist, Robert Owen of England, had raised the demand for a ten-hour day as early as 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. For the rest of the English workers, progress was slower. Women and children were only granted a ten-hour day in 1847.
French worker’s demand for a 12-hour day was granted after the February revolution of 1848. In the United States, where May Day was born, Philadelphia carpenters campaigned for a ten-hour day in 1791. By the 1830s, this had become a general demand. In 1835, workers in Philadelphia organised a general strike, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” From 1830 to 1860, the average work day had dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours.
At the 1863 convention of the Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ Union, the eight-hour day was declared a top priority. The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organised mainly by the International Working Peoples’ Association.
Business and the state reacted to the rapidly growing militant movement by increasing its support to the police and the militia. Local business in Chicago purchased a $2 000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to use against strikers. On 3 May 1886 police fired into a crowd of striking workers, killing four and wounding many. This uproar was carried out against the backdrop of the Civil War, which marked the abolition of slavery and the opening of the Southern states to free-labour capitalism.
On 1 May 1890, May Day demonstrations took place in the United States and most countries in Europe. Demonstrations were also held in Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers marched demanding an eight-hour working day, equal rights for all and working-class unity.
Although the 1889 resolution called for a once-off demonstration on 1 May, the day quickly became an annual event. Throughout the world workers in more countries marked the celebration of labourers’ rights on May Day.
May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891. By 1904 the Second International called on all socialists and trade unionists in every country to “demonstrate energetically” annually on 1 May “for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the Russian socialist revolution. In 1927, workers in India observed May Day with demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. By that time, May Day was truly a world workers’ day.
Ironically, while May Day gained momentum across the world it lost steam in the United States where the celebration originated. Today May Day is celebrated as a public holiday throughout most countries with the exception of the United States, because of the holiday’s association with Communism.
Author: Staff Writer